I’ve always been a reader, and I’ve pretty much always had a book in my hand and three more in my backpack. That never used to feel like work or a duty; it was just what I wanted to do, and where my curiosity took me.
But since the dawn of social media, I’ve had to be much more deliberate in my reading, rather than whittling away my time reading the scattered passing thoughts of a quickly forgotten present.
Never has that been as true for me as in 2018. There were times I had to peel myself away from the disorienting present, as filtered through Twitter’s endless list of The Most Wrong People On The Internet, who were more wrong in more maddening ways than ever before. My therapy was to make myself read something long, something old, something that has proved its value for more than just a few days or hours, something that might help me find room for actual contemplation.
Here are the books I carried in 2018, starting, of course, with Anna Karenina. Reading Anna Karenina took me seven months — take that, Jack Dorsey!
The books I read that I recommend most highly:
- Anna Karenina by Leo Tostoy, translated by Constance Garnett
- Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
- This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
- Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood by Will Eisner
- Wilson by Daniel Clowes
- Abel’s Island by William Steig
Anna Karenina by Leo Tostoy, translated by Constance Garnett
It’s hard to do justice to the joy this book gave me. It’s worth all of its acclaim, and then some. But I’m not sure I know how to explain how or why.
First of all, it’s a slow and long book. Slow and long, as in, I read it from April until December, and there were times that my attention and will flagged.
If you start it and find it unbearably slow, I hear you. It opens with no action at all, and I didn’t get into the book until Anna Karenina, the character, finally entered the picture. Just at least give it that long; it picks up!
And when it gets up and running, it’s exhilarating. Tolstoy jumps from character to character, showing the world through their eyes: now an aging mother secretly horrified at the idea of going through the agonies of pregnancy and childbirth again; now an insecure artist dreading the conversations about art that he must suffer through with his patrons. The narrative dives into celebrity psychics, bird hunting, political reform, harvesting techniques, nationalistic hysteria, and horse racing.
I’m surprised the book is not talked about more for its particular focus on agricultural economics. Tolstoy has a lot to say about labor negotiation between former serfs and lords, mostly from the perspective of his aristocratic characters, but also with a proto-Marxist bent. The chapter where Kostya Levin, one of the two characters we spend the most time with, joins the peasants threshing the fields and feels great pressure to perform up to their level of fitness is reminiscent of Orwell’s essay “Shooting the Elephant”.
A continuing source of astonishment to me was how contemporary the book feels. Levin’s admiration for what he sees as the simplicity and freedom of peasant life, in contrast to his own isolation, individualism and idleness, is basically Eat, Pray, Love combined with Mao’s little red book.
All that said, this book is a commitment. And what moves and intrigues one person can seem worn and cliché to another. To show what I responded to, here is a main character, a young woman, reacting to meeting the title character, Anna, who is 10 or 15 years older:
…before Kitty knew where she was she found herself not merely under Anna’s sway, but in love with her, as young girls do fall in love with older and married women.
Anna was not like a fashionable lady, nor the mother of a boy of eight years old. In the elasticity of her movements, the freshness and the unflagging eagerness which persisted in her face, and broke out in her smile and her glance, she would rather have passed for a girl of twenty, had it not been for a serious and at times mournful look in her eyes, which struck and attracted Kitty.
Kitty felt that Anna was perfectly simple and was concealing nothing, but that she had another higher world of interests inaccessible to her, complex and poetic.
This short passage tells me so much about both characters, about their poise and presence, about their longings and depths. The book is filled with this sort of sketch, where Tolstoy puts the reader inside a character’s head and paints a whole landscape of their psychology with a few brushstrokes.
And remarkably, he always, always does it empathetically. There are characters who struggle with each other, look down on each other, even despise one another — but Tolstoy enters each of them, and shows the world through their eyes with true compassion.
I mean, he even dips into a dog’s perspective, expertly evoking not only the dog’s simple hungers and drives, but the dog’s own mental model of human thinking:
Laska slackened her speed. [The birds] were here, but where precisely she could not yet determine. To find the very spot, she began to make a circle, when suddenly her master’s voice drew her off.
“Laska! here?” he asked, pointing her to a different direction. She stopped, asking him if she had better not go on doing as she had begun. But he repeated his command in an angry voice, pointing to a spot covered with water, where there could not be anything.
She obeyed him, pretending she was looking, so as to please him, went round it, and went back to her former position, and was at once aware of the scent again. Now when he was not hindering her, she knew what to do, and without looking at what was under her feet, and to her vexation stumbling over a high stump into the water, but righting herself with her strong, supple legs, she began making the circle which was to make all clear to her. The scent of them reached her, stronger and stronger, and more and more defined, and all at once it became perfectly clear to her that one of them was here…
She stood still, feeling more and more conscious of it, and enjoying it in anticipation. Her tail was stretched straight and tense, and only wagging at the extreme end…
[Her master]was coming along with the face she knew so well, though the eyes were always terrible to her. He stumbled over the stump as he came, and moved, as she thought, extraordinarily slowly. She thought he came slowly, but he was running.
Honestly, I never appreciated the complexity in dogs’ relational behavior until reading Tolstoy’s take from well over a century ago. And there are aspects of human relational behavior I could say the same about.
In my reading, Tolstoy’s empathy, and his jumping around of perspectives, make an overarching point about the commonalities of human experience. For instance, everyone who observes Anna from the outside can’t help but be impressed and dazzled by her, and to feel that she has superhuman savoir faire. But when we look out from inside Anna’s mind, we see how miserable she is and how her outward performance is a burden, not an expression of balance. By Tolstoy’s telling, everyone feels that others exist at an impossible remove from their own experience, when really the human condition is universal.
Tolstoy also examines women’s work versus men’s work (in the aristocratic culture of Anna Karenina), and women’s limited domain versus men’s opportunity for writing and public intellectualism. When we enter his female characters’ minds, we find they have as much or more to say, and deep veins of knowledge that are poorly appreciated by the male-dominated world.
Saul Bellow has been quoted as asking, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” This is usually taken to imply that cultures that only recently became literate haven’t produced intellectual works to parallel those of European culture. But actually experiencing Tolstoy’s universalism for myself, I felt Tolstoy was putting Bellow’s question in a different light. Tolstoy’s map of the world’s intellectual work isn’t focused on a handful of supposed great works; instead, he sees millions of minds at work privately — many brilliant and wise, many dull and self-serving. Public writing does feature in Anna Karenina, but Tolstoy makes it out to be inferior to the day to day wisdom of common people. Public writing, in Tolstoy’s world, is usually unsatisfying, often incurious and self-serving. It is a limitation of the men in the novel that they are so focused on public writing and intellectual reputation, and so slow to appreciate the depths of their immediate relationships, and the complex views and experiences of the women in their lives.
The sportswriter and cultural critic Ralph Wiley responded to Bellow by pointing out that Tolstoy himself is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, because Tolstoy is no more “European” or “white” than he is human, and his is as much of the Zulus as he is of anyone else. My reading of Tolstoy suggests to me that he agrees.
That said, it’s a shame that Tolstoy, so willing to move the narrative into nearly anyone’s head among the aristocracy (or their pets), almost never takes the perspective of a servant, peasant, or other poor person. He gives us a few pages as a struggling painter, and several glimpses of characters’ money troubles, so I know he could handle the task. Why did his beautiful curiosity fail to extend across class lines?
Finally, in terms of translation, I absolutely love Constance Garnett’s writing. I think it’s remarkable that her translation still holds up, a century later, though I know critics have identified places they say her translator’s hand was too aggressive. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are a wife and husband translation team known for translations that feel like reading Russian sentences (rather than sounding like the text was originally composed in English), and I tried a few pages of their recent translation, but found it uncomfortably stiff.
Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
A beautiful and harrowing novel about morality, identity, and the destructive power of violence, set in an invented place: an unnamed frontier post of an unnamed empire in an unnamed world that might or might not be our own. The main character, a magistrate, is forced to confront his own complicity with the evils of the empire he works for.
It’s a simple scenario, and Coetzee makes his central character a simple and honest person. Though the narrator is far from a purely righteous actor, his fundamental decency is never in question, and we never experience him deluding himself about who is responsible for the pain the empire is causing.
Sometimes this honesty felt disappointing, like Coetzee was making the reader’s sympathy too easy. Given that aspects of this are going to be seen as analogies for white colonialism in Coetzee’s native South Africa, it’s frustrating that Coetzee never pierces this layer of self-criticism and self-inquiry.
That said, it’s impossible to forget the portrait Coetzee paints of the way violence takes on momentum and power as its own end and seeks out and obliterates freedom and humanity among both the victims and the perpetrators of violence.
Coetzee is a beautiful writer of sentences, paragraphs and pages, and reading him is a joy. Plus, the book is short!
The Power by Naomi Alderman
It was important for me to accept what this book is, and what it isn’t.
What it is: a fun, compelling page-turner that speculates on the social implications of dominant physical power, and got me thinking. What it isn’t: a nuanced take on gender dynamics. If you go hunting for weak points in the political and cultural world-building, you can find plenty.
I might imagine, just to take one example, that a Nigerian black man wondering in the Moldovan countryside during a civil war might be conscious of being subject to racist exclusion — or at least just sticking out! But this character’s first person perspective never touches on that, for a moment.
Even as an adventure, it’s a bit flimsy. The characters are mostly very familiar types: a “Mary Sue” who is infinitely adept; a “chosen one”, etc.
But the book shone for me as a light study in the corrupting power of power itself, and the ways that revolutionary violence spins into chaos and uncontrollable momentum.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
There’s a reason Little Women has stood the test of time: it has charm and a soul, and deep opinions about how life should be lived and moral people should conduct themselves. Even when those opinions seemed dated to me, and the language was ornate and hard for my daughters to follow, the intensity of the characters’ values exerts a magnetic pull that made us keep returning to the book.
The March sisters hold themselves to a standard of ethical purity that holds jealousy and selfishness as shameful sins, and self-sacrifice as the highest honor; and I think it did my daughters and me good to dwell in that mindset for a while.
The book has plenty of faults; it was famously written in a flurry and barely edited, and there are many slow episodes that should have been struck out in revision. We lost interest after the girls reached adulthood, 400 pages in.
It also suffers from sharing the oppressive assumptions of the post-Civil-War era when it was written. Most glaringly, even though the book is about the inner lives and relationships of a precocious and accomplished group of women, the characters and the author have a narrow understanding of gender roles.
I gather that at the time of its publishing, the book was seen as breaking new ground on gender; the character Jo emerges as the central character and is a stand-in for Alcott (she apparently even used to answer to “Jo” when so addressed by fans), and she’s a writer herself, who refuses to adhere to the role of a pretty and demure girl. Even so, there are plenty of attitudes and phrasings in the book about the nature of girls vs. boys, and women vs. men, that I simply could not read to my daughters as-is; I’ve never done so much editing on the fly while reading aloud.
I was also disturbed by the book’s treatment of war and militaristic patriotism. The family proudly and unhesitatingly commits to offering up the father’s life for the war effort. I fear the unexamined willingness of people to die at the command of their government, but I’ll accept that that’s just a difference of values, and I can respect their right to sacrifice. But this intensely moralistic family never dwells for a moment on the notion that he might kill people, both deserving and undeserving, or that he might provide support for pillaging, murder, rape or other destruction. This ethical abyss is in glaring contrast to the weight the family gives to the smallest lie.
Last, no one in the family examines the role of Hannah, whom the family employs as a servant, in their family’s life. Is she truly free to have a full life of her own, and a home life of her own? Is she welcome to negotiate the terms of her employment, the way she might if she were part of, say, a union, or even if she just had the chance to make friends with other domestic employees?
In its strengths and weaknesses, the book is a fascinating reflection of what morality means in Christian American life.
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
It’s delightful to read sci-fi that has been so consciously filtered through Chinese history and culture, which I know so little about. Translator Ken Liu seems to have focused on giving the reader the sense of reading the book in its linguistic and cultural context, rather than rewriting it as if it had been written in English, in America; in contrast to Anna Karenina, I appreciated that approach here.
The grounding of this story in the Cultural Revolution is brilliant and adds a vivid and believable background to a story of planetary betrayal.
But the text did get incredibly slow and technical at times, and these parts were painful to read. In fact, for my own future reference, I’d recommend just skipping about half the book, and only reading chapters 1, 2, 7, 20–27, 31–35.
The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories
I’m not sure if it’s a matter of getting older, but I just didn’t have the patience for most of these stories. Several seemed to have only one thing to say, one joke or situation, and repeated it for dozens of pages past my getting the point. Stories that might have been compelling at 3000 words were unbearable at 15,000.
Firewatch, Willis’s best known novella, dragged, but it grew on me the more I reflected on it. It’s certainly one of the most unforgettable commentaries on historiography I’ve ever read. And her story “Inside Job” was a hilarious and wry take on the credulity of New Agey Californians.
Firewatch, Inside Job: highly recommended.
The rest of the stories: not recommended.
Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Denisen
The shortest of these stories, by far, is “The Old Chevalier”, and it was pure joy. The rest of them felt exhausting and interminable.
Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie
I loved the characters of this novel, but couldn’t bear its static pace, though I understand that the pace is a reflection of their partially stalled lives. I could see and feel Ifemelu and Obinze’s worlds vividly. But nothing seemed to happen. I kept putting it down and picking it up, and somewhere after the 100 page mark, I realized reading it felt like a chore.
The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino
The central conceit of this novel is a fun one: mysterious travelers put down Tarot cards, sometimes one at a time, sometimes several at once in an arrangement, always silently; the other travelers they meet interpret them as a story of the storyteller’s life, and Calvino tells that story.
Unfortunately, the stories themselves aren’t terribly interesting. I couldn’t discern anything Calvino was hungry to say, and I felt stuck in a cerebral exercise.
Tao Te Ching: a book about the way and the power of the way, a new English version by Ursula Le Guin and J. P. Seaton
When Ursula Le Guin, the science fiction writer, died last year, I was surprised to learn she had published a translation of the Tao Te Ching.
I took a look, and was amazed to find it resonating with. In Le Guin’s hands, at least, it seems surprisingly fresh, and it’s hard to believe it was written 2500 years ago, and not in, say, 1990’s California!
Le Guin emphasizes that this is not really a translations so much as a reinterpretation; there’s a lot of artistic license on her part, and some purists don’t like the results. But I love it. Though I did often find the poetry frustratingly vague and impenetrable, and it was difficult to read in a single sitting, most pages felt lucid and human, compelling and even funny.
Several passages spoke to me especially as a parent and a teacher. I quote a few below.
Reading these for the first time, it helps to understand that for Lao Tzu, “doing nothing” and “getting smaller” are good things. As I read more, I started to see that “getting smaller” didn’t mean becoming passive or small-minded, but becoming more focused, present, direct, and clear; and less brash, frantic and careless.
“The Uses of Not”
meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t
is where it’s useful.
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
is where it’s useful.
Cut doors and windows
to make a room.
Where the room isn’t,
there’s room for you.
So the profit in what is
is in the use of what isn’t.
Studying and learning daily you grow larger.
Following the way daily you shrink.
You get smaller and smaller.
So you arrive at not doing.
You do nothing and nothing’s not done.
To run things,
don’t fuss with them.
Nobody who fusses
is fit to run things.
are hardly known to their followers…
To give no trust
is to get no trust.
When the work’s done right,
with no fuss or boasting,
ordinary people say,
Oh, we did it.
Of course, sometimes there’s no way to avoid being frantic! Sometimes, my frustration is what gets us out the door in the morning and me to work on time.
But I have had moments of clarity, both in the classroom and at home, when I’ve suddenly realized that my frustration and anxiety about herding my kids around are not actually serving any purpose.
My careful plans are great, but they’re only great because of their potential to work well for these kids, right now, right here. Some days, that means the best way to fulfill the spirit of my plans is to scrap them!
Here is New York by E. B. White
A love letter to New York City written in 1949, amazing both for the past it evokes and the observations about the city that are still, remarkably, true today. The 30 pages or so of actual text have been padded like a 10th grade book report to triple their rightful page count, which is a trick I wish the publishing industry pulled more often.
Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era by James Barrat
Basically a book-length New Yorker article about artificial intelligence and its dangers.
This book is often recommended in the same sentence as Nicholas Bostrom’s Superintelligence, but the two are very different. Bostrom’s book is a detailed and almost surgical catalog of problems and possible solutions, whereas Barrat’s is more of a wandering discussion. That made it hard for me to come away from this book with a coherent sense of what I’d read, and it made it a bit of a slog to read; it took me more than a year.
Still, it’s the book I would recommend to someone beginning to explore these ideas. Given how important I think these ideas are — I would would put it up there with climate change and nuclear disarmament — it doesn’t really matter that the writing is somewhat generic.
Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy
A masterfully researched deep look into a single murder case in LA, followed through all its bureaucratic and political and legal obstacles.
Leovy’s thesis is often summarized by others as “people say inner cities are policed too much, but in fact they are policed too little”. But her take is more critical of the police than that, even though most of the book’s heroes are police. I’d state her thesis instead as “police are not intentionally destructive, but their practical mandate is to manage crime, not to stop it, and workaday cops are not going to put a stop to violent inner city crime until we demand it”.
The book is written in a very readable style, though its many good ideas could be digested in a longform article, rather than a book.
Tribes by Seth Godin
Inspiring and decently useful, if a bit overblown.
As always, I wish Godin were more focused on the details of how things work, rather than his own pitch and thesis. That said, there’s a lot that’s useful here. I especially enjoyed the story of Nathan Winograd, who led a movement to stop killing animals at animal pounds. I also keep thinking about Godin’s proposed solution for charities that miss the days when direct mail was more effective: focus on inviting people to volunteer in person (like the New York charity City Harvest does).
But while I find myself nodding my head along to Seth Godin’s books, I rarely find that there’s much I’m able to recall about them after I finished. His enthusiasm makes him an engaging read, but it’s too bad there’s so little meat to chew on.
We Have No Idea: A guide to the unknown universe by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson
A wonderful, approachable introduction to physics with a focus on the limits of what we do and don’t understand about how the universe works. Rather than listing an endless stream of things we know, the authors concentrate on how much we don’t know, and how that dwarfs the little that we do know.
This makes for fascinating reading, and it’s an approach that shapes the book’s form to its content extraordinary really well. The explanations are punctuated with silly cartoons that make for comic relief, and while they don’t really add a lot to my understanding, at least they didn’t get in the way.
What didn’t work so well was the joking tone of the text itself. Because the authors’ tone was dry and meant to be winking, it was hard to know sometimes if they meant a metaphor literally. When they joke about “taking the temperature” of a photon and measuring it in kelvin, I really do not understand if they mean photons have temperature. (I’m pretty sure they’re kidding?)
But the bigger problem with the book is that the authors are not as good at explaining concepts as they think they are. I have struggled my whole adult life to understand the basic reasoning behind Einstein’s deduction of special relativity, and every explanation I read, including Einstein’s own, quickly goes over my head. Cham and Whiteson seldom talk about the experiments that contributed to developing all of this understanding and which scientists struggled to reconcile with their theories, and so I feel as if I’ve been dropped into the middle of a court case without knowing the offense in question. This context is missing whether they’re talking about antiparticles, discovering bosons, accelerating particles, or establishing the immutability of the speed of light.
Still, it’s as good an introduction to physics as I’ve ever encountered, and I wish there were introductions this decent other topics I’m interested in.
The Art of Screen Time by Anya Kamenetz
A sane and thoughtful presentation of what we know, and don’t know, about the effect of screen entertainment on kids.
Kamenetz’s reporting is heavy on information, that avoids the sort of shrill groupthink that other public intellectuals engage in when they condemn screen technologies. I came away trusting her immensely.
Kamenetz has clearly done her homework — and then some. She introduces a talking head at the rough pace of one every two pages, and the result can feel like an exhaustive industry report, hard to get through in its entirety.
Kamenetz’s own voice is lucid, honest and mercifully non-alarmist, and my favorite sections were her reflections and digesting of what she’s learned. Parents freaked out by their children’s use of technology will be at least somewhat reassured by what she reports. Her overall takeaway is a reasonable echo of Michael Pollan’s simplified dictum about food and diet: “Enjoy screens, not too much, mostly with others.”
This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
A masterpiece of visual storytelling, with a virtuosic range of approaches to rendering its world, from naturalistic to expressionistic. The threads of the story are simple, but fit together in a way that lets them reflect back on each other.
The ways that the adolescent central characters resist each other, try out ideas on each other, reject each other, and experiment with imitating each other felt profoudly true. It’s faithful to the way kids think and live intense inner dramas, in tension with their relationships and outward appearance of calm.
I learned something new about being human in this book.
Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood by Will Eisner
I read this in college, and loved it just as much rereading it at twice the age I was then. It’s an ambitious piece of work, tracing the history of a fictionalized Bronx neighborhood from the pre-revolutionary, Dutch era to the 1990s. It takes a frank look at the mechanisms of politics, capitalism, ethnicity and family as they build, transform, destroy, and ultimately rebuild the neighborhood.
Eisner is a humanist, and lets the characters breathe and express themselves whether they’re standing in for a type or not, whether they’re lining up with a stereotype or not. Sometimes that means characters can be flat, but even when they act as villains or they only have a few panels, Eisner always shows that they have their own internal motivation.
And no one has command of the eye’s attention like Eisner; he’s beyond fluent in a visual language of communicating personality and information.
Wilson by Daniel Clowes; Patience by Daniel Clowes
Let me start by describing Wilson: each page is laid out the same, with a title at the top, and six panels that tell the story of a single scene. They are all different degrees of bleak and depressing, and only occasionally end on a positive note. They all center on Wilson, the titular character, who is an aging, narcissistic, unattractive, balding, mansplaining blowhard.
It sounds like reading it would be a miserable and tedious experience! But describing this book doesn’t do it justice at all, and I think that is part of Clowes’s point. This is where I would tell you that you come to love and appreciate Wilson and his rascally diatribes over the course of the book. But you don’t. In fact, none of the experiences that I assumed I would have matched up with the experiences I was actually having; it’s as if Clowes peeled away every piece of surface similarity to well-trod literary experiences, and insisted on building something up from scratch.
In my reading, Wilson ends up being a story about the way narratives irresistibly draw us away from meaning and into meaninglessness. It ends up being a story about the way intellectualism forms a cover for immaturity. It ends up being a story about how life happens in between the moments we notice, and the biggest decisions happen in passing and not deliberately. It ends up being a story about the steep price of being liberated from comforting illusions in the modern era. It ends up being a story about how form end genre color our interpretation of life. It ends up being a story about how we talk ourselves out of freedom, sanity and joy.
Few writers could pull something like this off. That said, I don’t expect other people to find as much here as I did. We all have our own resonances, and this resonated deeply with me, but at a frequency that I recognize is peculiar!
Clowes’s Patience seems to be an attempt by to mix some of the bleak, small town, slice of life work he did in Ghost World with the absurd, science fiction and crime elements he explored at times in Eightball and David Boring. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end up working either on a page by page level or as a whole. The most intriguing elements and characters never get explored beyond a surface level. There is something remarkable about the lengths the main character goes to to reach his goal, reasons that don’t quite add up; maybe Clowes is asking us how many — if any — of our motivations do add up, ultimately.
Wilson: highest recommendation.
Patience: not recommended.
The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang
A simple and beautiful graphic novel for kids that touches lightly on fashion, trans identity, the closet, class and power, with virtuosic cartoon art and inspired fashion illustration.
The two characters at the center of the book are both complex and believable, width their own combinations of courage and fear, pizzazz and humility, glamour and shame.
It’s a total work of fantasy, not just in its imaginary version of the world that is more accepting, not just in the neat way the story ties up, but also in the way the character’s creative work is always perfect and always lands; she’s a bit of a “Mary Sue”, a magical genius whose hard preparatory work mostly happens off-camera. But while there is a deeper level of storytelling that author/illustrator Jen Wang isn’t trying to reach here, it’s still a fabulous and delightful and moving book.
March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell
An extraordinary adaptation of John Lewis’s life story to the comics format, with the help of collaborators Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. Lewis was at the center of the Civil Rights movement, not so much making speeches as organizing at the ground level, enduring violence and strategizing moment to moment about when and where to push forward, and when to compromise or retreat.
The layouts and art direction in book one are cinematic and kinetic, bringing sit-ins to dramatic, harrowing life. Each page is a beauty, and Lewis’s clear, memorable voice comes through unmistakably.
Be forewarned (and, hopefully, excited): this book is remarkable for its focus on the day to day grind of activism and the arguments about tactics; it’s not glossy, sepia-toned or wistful in the slightest. The violence and white supremacist hate are shown just a little at a time by Lewis and co., but they’re there, and you should consider the age and maturity of any kids you give it to.
Monstress: books 1 and 2 by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
I had a curious reversal reading this. It was recommended to me by Tony, the longtime proprietor of the famous Million Year Picnic comic shop in Cambridge. I started by reading the seventh issue, and while the art is unquestionably stunning, I found the writing flat, lifeless, and derivative; worst of all, it clearly suffered from “chosen one” syndrome, the most tired trope in fantasy.
Then I started from the beginning and read the first two volumes in order and, to my surprise, I couldn’t put it down. Part of my change of heart, I realized, came from the bad luck of having starting with an unusually weak issue, in which several characters with ostensibly rich lives and motivations unconvincingly drop everything to help the chosen one. But mostly, I realized, the problem was that Liu has built a dense world and the reader needs the gently paced introduction to it that she crafts in the first few issues.
You should know that Monstress is extremely violent, though it doesn’t feel exploitatively so. Twice I gasped or exclaimed at a grisly turn. But the violence has consequences — it’s not, you know, comic book-y — and Liu dwells on its repercussions, rather than casually moving on to the next bit of gore.
Monstress is also extremely cute, sometimes in a sexy way and sometimes in a cutesy, kawaii way. The cuteness and violence is a very Japanese mix, but I like the writing more than I’ve liked just about any manga in translation. It’s also somehow a very feminine book — not just because nearly all of the characters are female, but because the relationships are drawn with nuance and complexity, and the world-building is focused on layers of depth, not on precise mechanics. Fans of Saga would like this.
Love and Rockets: New stories #7 by Gilbert and Jamie Hernandez
Love and Rockets sort of has its own cosmology of character types, themes, and style. I never totally understand what’s going on, or the full backstory, but somehow in the Hernandez brothers’ hands that’s a beautiful thing, as though the comic is a lens on the world where the dials of sexuality, kitsch, belonging and expression are all turned way up. Their eclectic and fragmented approach to storytelling and story framing makes brilliant use of the comics medium, and their voice is always unmistakeable.
Usagi Yojimbo Saga Book 1 by Stan Sakai
Usagi Yojimbo is an indie comics character who is been around for a good 30 years now; he was created in the same moment that gave us the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but never crossed over.
Usagi is a samurai in an anthropomorphic animal version of medieval Japan, and the stories take place in the Kurosawa-Sergio Leone realm where violence and honor are intermixed. It’s not really historical Japan; it’s an amalgamated and aggrandized version of history that is connected to national mythology, like the Wild West in the United States.
The worst Usagi stories are ones that do little else than fawn at Usagi’s invincibility and celebrate his violent punishment of foolish bandits and such. But the best Usagi stories show copiously researched slices of life in medieval Japan, or undercut the self-serving (and over-simplified) bushido ethos that holds dying for your feudal lord to be the greatest aspiration.
This volume is an excellent introduction to the character, and it was lots of fun to reread. Sakai’s page plotting and visual storytelling are second to none.
The Can Opener’s Daughter by Rob Davis
It’s difficult to describe this book or place it in terms of genre. I might say “the premise is a world in which each person constructs their mother and father out of found materials”, but that wouldn’t do it justice; that makes it sound silly, which it isn’t, and besides, that’s only the beginning of the absurdity.
I suppose it’s a sort of extreme magic realist fantasy; each turn of the page brings new elements that are fantastical and unrealistic, as well as new elements that are familiar and realistic. Some comparable books are James Stokoe’s insane Wonton Soup and Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, where Oxford University and familiar dynamics of parenting and politics exist alongside talking bears, witches, and daemon familiars.
But though the world of the book is absurd, it’s very specifically not absurdist; it’s a serious world with its own rules, even if those rules are sprawling and inscrutable. I did wish at times for more of a story to be told that makes creative use of a small number of these rules; instead, the rules pile on top of each other and come in and out of the plot too fast to really register.
I didn’t think the book was ultimately successful, but it’s certainly unforgettable.
Kill or Be Killed: vol 1 by Ed Brubaker,
The art in this hard-boiled crime thriller is a combination of hyperrealistic and sketchy, and seems based on posed photographic references, which can feel stiff. And there is a bit of disappointing inconsistency to the faces, which hinders recognition and makes the characters’ age feel inconsistent.
But the writing is human, loose, and simple; in its best moments, it’s reminiscent of The Bicycle Thief.
Invincible: Ultimate Collection volumes 1–6 by Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley, and Cory Walker
Invincible is a modern take on the superhero genre, sometimes skewering and reconsidering its tropes, sometimes just rehashing them and having fun with them. I suspect it owes a lot to Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Top Ten, as well as Brian Michael Bendis’s Powers, and is obviously drawing plenty on Spider-Man and Superman.
As with Superman, the near invincibility of the main character can make for low-stakes showdowns with villains; and at least at first, it seems hard to understand how many stories can be hung on the thin frame of a nearly unbeatable young hero, especially because the tone is juvenile. (There are painfully frequent “That is so gay” jokes.) But without giving the plot away, it eventually becomes clear that at least some of the book’s sense of low stakes, and its casual tone, have been intentionally misleading.
To my surprise, my daughters started reading volume 1 over my shoulder and latched onto it, and wanted to read the entire thing with me. This was a bit of a balancing act, because there’s some truly grisly violence, swearing, and some non-graphic sex, and I had to skip a page here and there and rephrase the occasional line. But on the whole, they connected to the constantly high stakes and Kirkman’s faithfulness to the perspectives of his characters, particularly the practical debates between ostensible allies about morality, trust and obedience.
That said, for a “superhero in the real world” series, I never felt as surprised and delighted as with the unflinching expectations-defying bravado of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s Kick-Ass.
The “Ultimate Collection” volumes 1 and 2 sustained our attention; it slowly lost steam after that, but I would recommend it through volume 5.
Brighter Than You Think: 10 Short Works by Alan Moore, with critical essays by Marc Sobel
A collection of short comics stories written by veteran comics writer Alan Moore, mostly independent works or one-offs.
Some of these are better than others. I highly recommend “In Pictopia” (readable online), which brilliantly makes the artistic transitions underway in the comics business into Shakespearean tragedy (with a reference to Henry IV’s “I know thee not, old man” scene); “Tapestries”, an anti-war meditation; “Come on Down”, a take on the horrors of mass entertainment; and “The Hasty Smear of My Smile”, which no description can do justice.
I love the personal and political morality that comes across in so many of his stories. He seems to relish taking an absurd or kitschy premise and taking it incredibly seriously; “The Hasty Smear of My Smile” is an object lesson in the lengths of that commitment.
The stories I didn’t connect to tended to dip into Moore’s symbology-focused, Jungian philosophizing, a strain of his writing (e.g., in From Hell) that has always left me cold.
Editor Marc Sobel’s commentary adds context and points out trends in Moore’s work, without being too distracting from the comics themselves.
Hilda and the Stone Forest by Luke Pearson
Light and fun. Hilda is a great heroine, and her world is fantastical and imaginative. It has one foot in realism and another in fantasy, and this is either a loose and delightful mix, or a clashing mismatch, depending on your perspective.
One of a series, and it does feel “episodic”, by which I mean the story doesn’t have a sense of urgency and purpose, but not everything needs those!
Mind MGMT book 1 by Matt Kent
A fresh take on psychic and superhero powers, with loose and sketchy artwork that complements the premise well.
What’s disappointing is that the heroes are so spectacularly powerful, the stakes seem low. I missed seeing the characters progressively unlocking abilities through work and accomplishments; instead, they are basically gods from page one. Writing godlike characters well is hard, and the writing here is not up to the task. It sets up what seem to be intriguing mysteries, but the explanation, again and again, is just that superpowers were used.
Artichoke Tales by Megan Kelso
This fairyland political allegory never seemed to congeal around being a detailed political history, a fantasy story, or an exercise in world building. I found myself continually thinking, I bet it’s about to get really interesting…
Star Wars: the Screaming Citadel by Kieron Gillen, Jason Aaron, Salvador Larroca and Andrea Broccardo
Does nothing with the Star Wars universe and its rules and themes.
A Single Match by Oji Suzuki
I was pulled back to reread this, though I had mixed feelings before.
The impressionistic style of these stories is wonderful, and they have a mesmerizing mournful quality, but that doesn’t make up for how little meat is on the bones. The stories just seldom seem to go anywhere besides evoking a mood of general, pervasive anomie and loss.
Batwoman: Elegy by Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III
This Batwoman is an ass-kicking dyke who left the Marines because she wouldn’t lie about her sexuality! She is a much loved character, and this book is often recommended.
But I don’t think Batwoman has enough of a character struggle. What’s at stake for her internally in her crime-fighting work? The absence of any answer is especially glaring given her superficially intimate relationship to the enemy cult that’s battling her; can’t there be some part of her that longs for the devotion they feel, or that relishes the challenge a little too much… or something?
Worse, Williams’s clever layouts generally obscure, rather than illuminate, the sequential action. Feels under-written and under-edited.
Batman: Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean
Sometimes I am flabbergasted by the incredibly wide gap between what qualifies as a great work in literature versus what qualifies in comics.
I’ve heard about this graphic novel forever, and always assumed it was good. It’s very much not good. I’ve never read anything so on the nose and devoid of actual dramatic questions and story development.
One particularly egregious example: at the start, Batman is told he must enter Gotham City’s insane asylum and become an inmate. OK, great premise! So Commissioner Gordon asks him if he’s afraid because he doesn’t belong there. And Batman replies, “No — I’m afraid because maybe I do.”
Like, yeah, that’s obviously the whole point, but you don’t want to maybe build to that? This happens on page five. But Batman is totally ready with a very searching self-diagnosis, like maybe I’m no better than the insane villains I’m locked into performative combat with? Where do you possibly go from there, in terms of character development?
The plot is no better handled; e.g., Batman enters the asylum on the condition that all hostages be released, then just sits idly by without comment as a hostage is murdered.
Emphatically not recommended.
Abel’s Island by William Steig
There are few children’ writers who can mix adventure, melancholy, despair and hope like Stieg can. Abel, his protagonist, barely survives a winter that Stieg renders tedious and terrifying. But when he finally feels the first blush of spring, Stieg has held out for so long that a joy and passion for life seem to explode from the page.
In Stieg’s hands, each small bit of Abel’s survival is itself a huge adventure, with no need for supernatural tricks or plot twists. Abel’s makeshift attempts at technology are a primer in how invention and iteration work, and his exploration of art is as convincing a justification for art itself as I’ve ever read.
An exquisite story.
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
This is part of the modern child lit canon, and I’ve always meant to read it. Since my daughter finished the Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events and Land of Stories series, she’s been casting about for more books to get into, and we’ve had several misfires — books I pushed, but which she lost interest in.
She resisted this one, too, for the first 20 pages or so; the writing is emphatically slow, full of languorous descriptions of the landscape and its sticky heat. But the slowness seems deliberately matched to the book’s plot and themes, and even though Babbitt keeps the story very still from page to page, it never felt to me like she wastes a word. It ended up casting a spell on my daughters and me.
Along the way, Babbitt takes her child readers into profound questions of philosophy and morality. We came away having considered murder, crime, life and death from surprising angles.
A deeply mournful book, but in a lush way, not a bleak one.
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
For nearly a century, there has been an entire category of children’s chapter books that deal with hard-hitting social issues and show these to the reader through a central child’s pain. Sometimes putting this pain front and center is a bit of a drag, and in the worst cases, it feels exploitative and uses sensational abuse to paper over an absence of story.
So it’s thrilling that this beloved book, in contrast, showed me two forms of connection and community for everyone of pain and disconnection. The author describes it as a hymn to the South, and it captures the types of eager storytellers and wry old timers that I know from visiting Texas as a child. It’s also about storytelling itself, as a means of wrestling with the past and reframing your pain on your own terms. It was a bit distracting that race was conspicuously scrubbed from the narrative, however.
My daughter loved this book, and I’m glad she got me to pick it up!
Words with Wings by Nikki Grimes
A book of poetry, but not just a collection of independent poems; the poems are all in the voice of one character, and steadily build a portrait of a girl’s inner and outer life, both by relating events in her story and by providing impressionist glimpses into her mind.
It wasn’t the easiest thing to get my daughter to sit down and listen to, but she did listen for a while and liked it! That’s a big win, as far as I’m concerned.
If you’ve already spent some time with Where the Sidewalk Ends, this is a wonderful step towards more poetic depth.
Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beauty and David Roberts
Excellent art and doctor Seuss-like verbal rhythm make this book a delight, not to mention how great it is to have irrepressible scientific curiosity modeled by a character who’s a black girl.
I did find that the central plot device — the search for the source of an icky smell — didn’t complement the characters and scenario well.
Secret Coders: book 4 by Gene Luen Yang
I keep expecting not to like this series very much; and I must admit that the characters and plot are not especially compelling. But the computer science concepts are integrated so well that I really don’t mind. Book 4 gets into loops and procedures, and while it’s not quite as natural a narrative fit as binary was in book 1, it works.
The Rose Cottage Tales (Tumtum and Nutmeg: books 4–6) by Emily Bearn
These stories stay within narrow constraints and tread the same ground over and over, but they are fun and fluently written. Most importantly, my daughter eagerly asks for them. And my older daughter, who knows she’s too old for them, loves to listen in! I do have to do a tiny bit of editing on the fly to adjust for the casual sexism — the husband is usually more aggressive and headstrong and literary, the wife more worrisome and nagging and culinary.
One Red Bicycle: The Extraordinary Story of One Ordinary Bicycle by Jude Isabella and Simone Shin
Compelling concept, but has about twice the number of words that it should have. I appreciate that there is more focus on Africa than on the US, so it’s not merely a story of first world largesse.
Druthers by Matt Phelan
A fun, straightforward picture book about imagination and play.
Nothing Rhymes with Orange by Adam Rex
Meant to be entertaining to read aloud, full of character and humor.
The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers
I appreciate the clever metaphor here, but the story is too abstract to be as effective as it should. The little girl getting the heart out of the bottle seems like a huge missed opportunity. Still, a sweet and tender book.
The Wild Robot by Peter Brown
Unreadably slow and spare. I get the sense that the slowness and lack of story is supposed to reflect the robot’s isolation and loneliness, but it didn’t feel like there was anything else to keep me engaged while I waited for the story to kick in.
Pierre the Maze Detective: The Search for the Stolen Maze Stone by Hiro Kamigaki
These ambitious mazes feel overly busy and unsatisfying. They’re packed with detail, but don’t feel like they reward study like Where’s Waldo? does.
Electric Arches by Eve Ewing
I was super excited about this book but I found it just as impenetrable as I find most poetry.
Sometimes I want to take poets and beg them, “STORY!” “STORY!” “STORY!” As a reader, I need words and sentences to latch onto each other and build something concrete and vivid and, well, small — the pieces of narrative need to be digestible on a human scale. For me, great literature can certainly be large and powerful, but that monumental size has to be built up from pieces that I can hold in my hand. I love allusion and circumlocution in my literature, but really only when it emerges as the big picture; if every line on the page is up to something opaque, I feel at sea as a reader.
Performed aloud, a lot of these poems feel like they could work wonderfully, the way lyrics don’t need to be stories to work (and lyrics writers sometimes mistakenly go too far towards story). But in print, I just can’t let the words flow over me the way I can when I hear them spoken.
Another problem I often have with poetry: the metaphors and references are clearly evocative to the author, but it doesn’t feel like they’ve been crafted to be meaningful the reader. They’re not a performance with the audience’s experience in mind, so that the audience has what we need to unpack our own rich imagery from the spare words.
I can’t deny that these phrases are pretty: “I come from the fire city / fire came and licked up our houses, left them up like they were nothing”… “Dorchester girl gold necklace / heavy on your heart like / your blue-eyed blue heart Grandma / Mostly like that Southern kind of song” . But they just don’t feel like they need me to engage them or complete them, or want me to.
Princess Hair by Sharee Miller
Enjoyable to just about any child who likes princesses, this book gently and decisively counter-programs our society’s narrow ideas about what kinds of hair and hairstyles are glamorous and beautiful.
Many: The Diversity of Life on Earth; and Tiny Creatures, by Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton
Author Nicola Davies, a zoologist, and illustrator Emily Sutton are both veteran children’s book creators, and in Many: The Diversity of Life on Earth, they masterfully take a complicated topic — how zoologists analyze and catalogue the planet’s biodiversity — and make it simple, intriguing, and beautiful. Their work is gorgeous on the surface level, with lush and expressive watercolors, but also expertly crafted as an explanatory work, making complex ideas feel natural and inviting.
Many is beautifully illustrated and has a great rhythm to it, a difficult thing in a non story nonfiction picture book. That said, since it doesn’t have much of a story, it seems hard for me to get kids to connect to it.
Tiny Creatures doesn’t have the same sense of momentum and purpose.
Many: highly recommended.
Tiny Creatures: not recommended.
Home by Carson Ellis
Picture book about different types of homes. A simple concept very well done. Dances between realism, fantasy and absurdism gracefully and humorously. Instead of being just an illustrated list, it’s unexpectedly thought-provoking.
Strong Is the New Pretty: A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves, by Kate T. Parker
A coffee table book of portraits of girls, from about ages 4–18, doing all sorts of things: favorite things and challenging things, but also everyday things, or nothing. Each portrait is accompanied by a quote from the subject.
Showing this to my daughters was a powerful reminder of how important images are. I like to think that they are growing up with the sense that they can do anything, but I don’t think it had ever occurred to them that they could play football, or run a triathlon, or be proud to be a cheerleader, or volunteer in the Junior ROTC, until they saw portraits of girls doing those things in this book. It’s a wonderful book to have around, not just for girls but very much for boys as well, to broaden their assumptions of what girls are good at and who girls are.
And while the general tone is gently inspiring and not overtly political, the portraits were clearly approached with the intention of countering the way girls are usually depicted in glossy photos. That is, even though the girls are shot beautifully, they are not pouting for the viewer’s gaze, but appear to be caught in the middle of their own personal and social expression.
Moreover, you can find a huge variety of types of girl in this book, including lots of girls of color, girls with disabilities, little people, and girls in hijabs. (I’m not sure if there were any trans girls, who I can imagine looking for themselves in its pages.)
This Book Thinks You’re a Math Genius by Mike Goldsmith and Harriet Russell
A book of math puzzlements, codes, and activities that is done better than most books like it. The tone is light, loose and clear throughout, while providing plenty of challenge and depth.
The explanations are superb, the layouts and visual explanations are clear and not busy, and it’s been carefully and thoughtfully curated.
My First Book of Patterns by Bobby George, June George and Boyoun Kim
Simple and well done: “A lot of diamonds make… Harlequin!”
A Children’s Zoo by Tana Hoban
A well-designed concept: a mini-poem of descriptive words and phrases precedes each name and picture of an animal.
Frida by Josh Winter and Ana Luan
The art is beautiful and visually expressive, fitting its subject. But the writing is unremarkable. For an artist as unique and mesmerizing as Kahlo, it’s disappointing that this book stays in the familiar territory of being generically inspiring, and doesn’t go deeper into Kahlo’s images and themes, or her many sharp edges.
Keith Haring, the Boy Who Just Kept Drawing by Kay Haring and Robert Neubecker
Keith Haring is such a wonderful subject that this book works, even if it barely features his art and misses the chance to invite the reader to interact with it. This is a big failure, given how emphatically To my ear, this reads a bit too much like a productivity book, as if the individual output of the artist is the point rather than the impact of the art on those who experience it.
Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai and Kerascoët
I deeply appreciate Malala and I’m glad this book exists, but I wasn’t sure it would make for an actually good read. I read it to my six year-old daughter and it didn’t really land. As inspiring as Yousafzai’s story is, this book itself doesn’t convey its stakes, or how rare and deep her courage is.
The story is framed around Yousafzai, but it’s too easy to come away from this and other casual introductions to Yousafzai’s story with the sense that Pakistan has one — and only one — activist concerned with women’s freedom and equality and democracy. I would love to see this framed instead as a widespread, ongoing struggle between pluralism and religious statism, within each country, including within the United States.
A picture of two men in turbans with rifles represent the Taliban Islamists who tried to murder her. I wish readers could see that the people who are fighting against them also look like that, too, as the book and film The Breadwinner was careful to do.
Still, I want my daughters to know who Yousafzai is, and this book does have the ability to enrich a child’s view of the world.
Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass by Dean Robbins, Sean Qualls and Selina Alko
Disappointingly static. I would have kept working to find the story and book.
Team BFF: Race to the Finish! (Girls Who Code book 2) by Stacia Deutsch
Really pretty unreadable, and even less actual computer science content than the first.
A Hundred Million Trillion Stars by Seth Fishman and Isabel Greenberg
The authors throw around large numbers, but they don’t try to to put them in relative context or make them into a compelling narrative.
The best part is the afterword, when they diagram which zeroes in a huge number represent which millions, billions, etc.
The Boo-Boos that Changed the World: A True Story About an Accidental Invention by Barry Wittenstein and Chris Hsu
Drags as a storybook, but has a great central technique that should be used elsewhere: it repeatedly reads “…and everyone instantly loved it and it was a success! The End”, and then the next page says “Not really.”